Gandhi versus Development: Part One
Part I - Gandhi and Modern Environmentalism
A guilty liberal finally snaps, swears off plastic, goes organic, becomes a bicycle nut, turns off his power, composts his poop, ... generally turns into a tree hugging lunatic who tries to save polar bears and the rest of the planet from environmental catastrophe. - "No Impact Man" Colin Beavan
The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need but not every man's greed. - Mahatma Gandhi
The two quotes above are far separated in time and place, and may differ ever so slightly in phraseology, but they articulate a remarkably similar world-view: mankind has sinned against Nature by promoting industrial development, mass production, and mass consumption; the only way out is to abandon our vain attempts to achieve progress and growth, and instead, embrace a society based on limited ambition, limited needs and subsistence production.
Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, venerated today as the "father of the nation," can be viewed from many different angles - there is Gandhi the nationalist; there is Gandhi the politician; there is Gandhi the prophet of non-violence; and then, there is the Gandhi of Hind Swaraj, the repudiator of modernity and technology and "Western-style" industrial development. It is this last anti-modern Gandhi that is ideologically very close to the eco-austerity paradigm advocated many environmentalists today.
Gandhi's rejection of modern civilization and development comes out most forcefully in Hind Swaraj, a short book he published in 1909. Here are some quotes.
Let us first consider what state of things is described by the word "civilization". ... Formerly, in Europe, people ploughed their lands mainly by manual labor. Now, one man can plough a vast tract by means of steam engines and can thus amass great wealth. This is called a sign of civilization. Formerly, only a few men wrote valuable books. Now, anybody writes and prints anything he likes and poisons people's minds. ... This civilization takes note neither of morality nor of religion. ... This civilization is irreligion ... This civilization is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self-destroyed. According to the teaching of Mahommed this would be considered a Satanic Civilization. Hinduism calls it the Black Age.
To observe morality is to attain mastery over our mind and our passions. So doing, we know ourselves... We notice that the mind is a restless bird; the more it gets the more it wants, and still remains unsatisfied. The more we indulge our passions the more unbridled they become. Our ancestors therefore set a limit to our indulgences. They saw that happiness was largely a mental condition. A man is not necessarily happy because he is rich or unhappy because he is poor. .... Millions will always remain poor. Observing all this, our ancestors dissuaded us from luxuries and pleasures. We have managed with the same kind of plough as existed thousands of years ago. We have retained the same kind of cottages that we had in former times and our indigenous education remains the same as before. We have had no system of life-corroding competition. Each followed his own occupation or trade and charged a regulation wage.
Postmodernist scholar, Ashis Nandy, approvingly describes how this anti-modern Gandhi serves to inspire various fringe anti-development, anti-progressive movements today.
This Gandhi is more hostile to Coca-Cola than to Scotch whiskey and considers the local versions of Coca-Cola more dangerous than imported ones. This is because ... he considers it more dangerous if ... long-lasting, deep-rooted Indian structures are created to produce superfluous items of mass consumption. ... This Gandhi - vintage Hind Swaraj - is also bit of a nag and a spoil-sport... It is this Gandhi who has guided the notorious agitation of Medha Patkar against the Narmada dam, Claude Alvares against Operation Flood, and Vandana Shiva against the Green Revolution.
To be continued: In Part II, we will discuss an important critique of Gandhian anti-modernism.